Succeeding in Calculus and the Power of Great Educators

I survived my first term in calculus! I also wound up getting an A which feels really, really good.

Previous math-related posts:

No one is born knowing math, but I think some people have a natural feel for it.

I am not one of those people. 

It takes a long time to wrap my mind around mathematical ideas and work through problems. I’m always one of the last students to finish a test and still wind up feeling rushed. If it were up to me, I’d take an entire day on one exam, slowly reading every word and envisioning what it all means. By evening, I’d be ready to pick up my pencil.

Despite my mental math gears turning at sloth-like speed, I managed to get an A (and a great score on my final exam).


Throughout the 6 math classes I’ve taken since Summer 2016 – starting with beginning algebra – I’ve learned the only way to get better at math is to do math. There are many resources that make the journey easier, but there aren’t shortcuts.

Do math, get better at math, rinse, repeat. 

It also helps to find a good educator.

I use when planning my classes. Generally, if a professor has excellent reviews across the board then that professor is amazing. Same logic goes for a professor with bad reviews. There are some that fall somewhere in the middle – glowing praise mixed with avoid him/her at all costs. In that case, I read between the lines. Does this reviewer seem angry over typical college expectations or does this seem like a legitimate complaint? I was lucky to find a calculus instructor with incredible reviews. Boy, she did not disappoint.

I was terrified – TERRIFIED – of calculus. When I began in algebra, I saw calculus in the distance and it might as well been the Eye of Sauron. And it is…in a way…

One does not simply walk into Calculus.


It’s actually not terrifying at all, but does require knowing your Algebra. My instructor did a quick algebra review before jumping into new material, but if it’s been awhile since your last algebra class, take some time to review a few things.

I took Differential Calculus which is mainly learning how to take the derivative of functions and applying them to real world problems. In order to do that, you should be very comfortable with factoring, simplifying, conjugates, quadratic equations, polynomials, and generally what is and isn’t allowed when working with fractions, powers, and roots. Luckily, most of those concepts are a quick Google search away. I’m sure there are more things to review, but those are the main ones off the top of my head with emphasis on factoring and simplifying.

Back to my instructor whom I’ll call Alice. An educator can make or break a student’s enthusiasm for a subject. I’ve had less-than-stellar instructors which made me dread their class. It’s hard to feel passion for something you’re just trying to survive. On the other hand, an educator who obviously loves teaching a subject is infectious.


Alice loves calculus. I could tell math runs through her veins. She would literally start talking fast and stop herself because she was getting too excited about how cool she finds math. She told calculus jokes often and I wanted very much to be in on the joke.

There were so many things Alice did right. She lectured for 3 hours straight, but that didn’t mean we took vigorous notes the entire time. She provided worksheets that we all worked through together which gave us time to watch her do her magic instead of needing to choose whether it’s better to watch or write. She taught us all the silly little rhymes and songs that she used to learn complicated equations. I found myself mentally humming through those songs on every exam. I could go on forever.

Overall, the most important thing she did was make an intimidating subject seem not so bad. Once that mental barrier was broken, I absorbed everything she said. Her enthusiasm for math made going to class a pleasure instead of a pain and somewhere along the way, I got really good at calculus! So special shout-out to every educator, from kindergarten through college, that make learning a positive experience.

Finally, I want to share a few tips and tools that helped me throughout the term.

Symbolab – This learning software has calculators for everything from low level math through advanced calculus. Specifically, it was a derivative calculator. Very important tip: Do not use it to “do” your homework. Do use it to check your work or to use the answer as your goal.

I worked through problems on my own then checked them against symbolab. When a problem completely stumped me, I got the answer from symbolab, then worked through the problem until I could get to that answer. Do not cheat in this process because it will come back to haunt you.

There were a few problems I had to revisit throughout the entire week, sometimes spending hours trying to solve them. I could have copied the answer from symbolab and moved on, but a) I wouldn’t know how to do it and b) every failed attempt taught me something new.

It didn’t happen often, but sometimes symbolab gives confusing methods and oddly structured answers. So copying their answer line by line isn’t the best idea.

This website is also reliable:

This concludes my thoughts on differential calculus: not incredibly hard, pretty cool, and fun with a good pilot at the controls. Plus, for this girl who started at plotting points on a graph 2 Summers ago, seeing that A made me a bit teary-eyed. Thank you, Alice.






3 comments on “Succeeding in Calculus and the Power of Great Educators”
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